Radionetherlands.nl | by Saskia van Reenen
On Wednesday, the Lower House is debating with Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen on whether the Netherlands should resume a political dialogue with Cuba. Raul Castro, who recently took over power from his brother Fidel, has introduced a number of economic reforms. This has given rise to cautious optimism. The European Union is considering lifting diplomatic sanctions, which were introduced in 2003 after the arrest of 75 dissidents.
In a letter to the House, Minister Verhagen writes “The human rights situation in Cuba is still poor and there is still no democracy”. Nevertheless, the minister is considering reviving diplomatic relations with Cuba now that Raul Castro has come to power. Resuming relations with Cuba could be in the Netherlands’ interests because the Dutch Antilles are neighbours and changes are taking place on the island.
Meanwhile there are positive signals that Raul Castro has set economic transition in motion. Cubans are allowed to buy electronic equipment such as mobile phones and DVD players. Farmers have been given their own land to stimulate food production. Now Cubans are allowed to stay overnight in hotels, whereas before only foreign guests were welcome.
Washington says the changes are only cosmetic. But during a visit to the Netherlands, dissident and union leader Pedro Pablo Alvarez said: “Under Fidel Castro these kind of reforms would never have been possible. But most Cubans will not benefit from the changes, because they earn too little to buy expensive gadgets. Only a small group of people close to the regime leaders or Cubans who can get hold of dollars from tourism can afford electronic goods.”
Prisoners of conscience
Pedro Pablo Alvarez wants Cuba to become a democracy in the future and all prisoners of conscience to be released. He himself has spent the last five years in prison. He was released early due to poor health, but on the condition that he left Cuba immediately. Now he lives in Spain, which normalised relations with Cuba in 2007, making it one of the first EU countries to do so.
The member states of the European Union have their own policies as well as a common EU policy with regard to Havana. Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero enjoys warm relations with Havana. The Czech Republic on the other hand, which used to be a communist country itself, insists that Raul Castro gives Cubans political rights as well. In recent years, the Netherlands supported the opposition and froze diplomatic relations after the dissident arrests. And the only talks were in cultural matters or at civil servant level. Now the time appears to be ripe for political dialogue. European Commissioner Louis Michel, who recently visited Cuba, is also in favour of lifting EU sanctions.
The Netherlands and other European companies are impatient to intensify trade contacts with Raul Castro’s regime, now that the liberalisation of the economy has begun. The European Union is the largest foreign investor on the island. Although there is competition from Venezuela and China, which is investing a lot in the nickel sector. In March, the Dutch Centre for Trade Promotion organised an exploratory trade mission to the Caribbean island. More than twenty companies took part. Albeit in secret, because European countries trading with Cuba run the risk of being boycotted by the United States.
Gemma Krijnen from the Social Enterprise platform hopes that the Netherlands eases the sanctions. She thinks a boycott will not lead to much and points out the effect so far on the dictatorship in Myanmar.
“Are sanctions the answer to human rights violations? I don’t want to trivialise the fact that more than three hundred people are in prison on Cuba and that Cubans have no freedom. But I don’t think you improve the situation by fencing off the country. You have enter into a dialogue and to keep at it. Dialogue is a slow process.“Instrument
Gerard Vaandrager, who organised the trade mission to Cuba, agrees. He points out that the Netherlands has not achieved anything in the past four years and says trade can be used to improve human rights.
“If a Dutch company invests in Cuba, even if it isn’t its main objective, it still contributes to improving the labour situation in Cuba and without realising it your own norms and values leave their mark.“Foreign investors are not allowed to choose their own employees on Cuba, instead the authorities recruit and pay staff. Mr Vaandrager says legislation has been introduced allowing foreign companies to give their employees extra money “under the table”. Previously this could only be done illegally, now he says it’s legal.
Both in politics and the economy, there is plenty of room for reform on Cuba. Union leader Pedro Pablo Alvarez points to the constructive role the Netherlands could play. So his message is: “Enter into dialogue, but do not give in too easily and stay critical!”